More of the West's small streams and wetlands would be protected by the Clean Water Act under an Obama administration proposal announced Wednesday.
The new guidance would replace policies of the President George W. Bush administration and clear up some of the legal murkiness created by two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that threw into question the reach of federal water pollution laws.
The draft, which the administration described as a step toward adopting a formal rule, would broaden federal jurisdiction over small tributaries, seasonal streams and nearby wetlands.
Those protections were narrowed by the high court decisions and subsequent guidances issued by the Bush administration, which effectively dropped regulation of isolated water bodies such as vernal pools and prairie pot holes that are not connected to traditional navigable waters.
The matter has been a contentious one. Agricultural and building interests have fought broader oversight, saying it hinders development and interferes with farm activities. Environmental groups have lobbied for coverage, arguing that intermittent or ephemeral waterways make up the majority of stream miles in the arid West.
"Finally you have an administration stepping up to clarify and restore these protections," said Jan Goldman-Carter, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.
But she added that the administration's move would not cover everything affected by the court rulings. "This proposal is still protecting very few of those geographically isolated water bodies."
Industry spokesmen complained that the new guidance would add to their regulatory burden: Federal permits are required to discharge pollution into protected waters or fill protected wetlands.
"This clearly increases the federal environmental footprint on the landscape," said Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau. "This is going to have a broad impact on the economy."
In a statement, the Environmental Protection Agency said the guidance "will keep safe the streams and wetlands that affect the quality of the water used for drinking, swimming, fishing, farming, manufacturing, tourism and other activities essential to the American economy and quality of life."